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July 28, 2010

Book Notes - Tony O'Neill ("Sick City")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Sick City is one of the funniest books I have read all year. Tony O'Neill's dark humor pervades this fast paced novel about drugs, popular culture, and Los Angeles.

Bookslut wrote of the book:

"While his last novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile, was really another grim survival novel, Sick City is actually a comedic caper novel starring a brand new cast of blown-pupil vagabonds. I can’t relate how funny and genuinely farcical the book is, but it stars a star-crossed pair of dope fiends who meet in rehab, only to find they’re worse for each other than crack."


In his own words, here is Tony O'Neill's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Sick City:


Putting together a soundtrack for my book, Sick City, proved to be somewhat difficult. The biggest problem I had was this: do I go for an album that amounts to a bunch of my favorite songs (subtext – please, please think that I have cool taste in music!) or do I go for something that is more representative of the book as a whole? In the end, I opted for the latter: these songs are a collection of numbers that in one way or another had an impact upon the book, or are specifically mentioned in the text. I think that revealing a characters taste in music can fill in subtleties and shades of the character really well. I also am forced to agree with the late, great Sebastian Horsley when he concluded, "all art is failed music".


"City" – Primal Scream (Evil Heat, 2002)

When I was struggling to find the right title for Sick City, I turned to music for inspiration. This track off of Evil Heat – one of my favorite Primal Scream albums, and one of their most under-appreciated – hit all the right notes for me. It really summed up a lot of the skuzzy feel I was going for, and the chorus of "Sick! Sick! Sick! Sick City! Gonna be the death of me…" really summed up a lot of the love-hate feelings I once had towards LA, feelings that have inspired a lot of my fiction. It's the one song on the album that doesn't fit somehow: while the rest of EVIL HEAT was founded on a kind of Krautrock motorik beat, "City" comes steaming in like Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, if someone swapped their skag for meth. It's messy, it's dirty, and it's impossible not to like.

"Heart Attack and Vine" – Screaming Jay Hawkins (Black Music for White People, 1991)

I love the original version of the song (by Tom Waits) of course, but there is something irresistible about hearing legendary voodoo-blues psychopath Screaming Jay Hawkins tackle this classic number. The lyrics totally sum up the Hollywood that I knew: the star-lined streets brimming with whores, schemers, lost souls, junkies and hustlers. But instead of being oppressively dark, the song is brimming over with dark humor (accented by Hawkins' grand guignol delivery) and ultimately leaves a big smile plastered to your face.

"Breaking Glass" – David Bowie (Low, 1977)

Jeffrey, one of the leads in Sick City is listening to this track in an early chapter. It's from my favorite Bowie album, Low, and clocks in at under two minutes which makes me love it all he more. In one minute and something seconds Bowie manages to deliver a crazy Germanic funkiness, fused to some of the most drugged-out, paranoid lyrics ever: "Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it!" This song was supposedly inspired by his occult dabblings and coke fueled breakdown in Los Angeles, prior to fleeing to Berlin, where he recorded "Heroes", "Low" and "The Lodger". The dark, druggy vibe of this song really fits in with certain passages of Sick City very well.


"I'm Scratching Peace Symbols on Your Tombstone" – The Manson Family (The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson, c1970, released 1991)

When writing a book in which the central conceit is that two dope fiends are trying to sell a stolen sex tape starring Sharon Tate, of course the Manson murders factor into your thinking. It wasn't until after I named the book, however, that I realized that Manson had recorded a track called "Sick City" as well. I listened to it. It was crap. Manson may have been really proficient at leading a murderous love cult, but Dennis Wilson must have been fried on some very heavy drugs when he tried to get Manson a record deal back in the 60s. I suppose that's not much of a revelation, now I think about it. However, this bootleg of the Manson family performing one of Charlie's songs has a weird, hypnotic power. It's so acid damaged and weird, with creepy lyrics, ghostly female backing vocals, and this psychotic-folky California vibe… it makes you think of bad trips and ugly scenes: running down the street naked at 3am convinced the devil is hiding in every garbage dumpster. We've all been there, right?


"Against All Odds" – Phil Collins (Against All Odds OST, 1984)

Yeah, I know. I went back and forth about including this one, but ultimately went for it. There's a character called Pat in Sick City. To give you a thumbnail sketch of Pat, he's a violent, racist speed freak and drug dealer who would think nothing of killing you if you happened to get between him and something he wanted. Pat's favorite song is "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins, and when he gets hopped up on ice he will talk your ear off about the virtues of this song. If you ever get stuck with Pat while he gets on a Phil Collins kick, for god's sake don't argue. Just nod your head, don't say anything to contradict him, and you should be okay.


"Dazed and Confused" – Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin, 1969)

Trina, the pill addicted stripper from Sick City, dances to this song in one scene. She tells Pat that she can only dance to Zep, because "That shit just makes me move." I picked this song in particular because it has this ominous, witchy feeling to it, like something dark and violent is just about to happen. Which - if you happen to be a character in this book - it probably is.


"Cereal Song" – Bicycle Thief (You Come and Go Like a Pop Song, 1999)

Bicycle Thief was Bob Forrest's band after Thelonious Monster. Bob Forrest is now Dr. Drew's sidekick on Celebrity Rehab, but don't hold that against him. Bob is alive, and he's making a living, and he should be applauded for that as he was the kind of stone dope fiend who usually ends up quitting because they got carried out in a box. Instead of dying, Bob embraced the 12 Steps and now has a degree of name recognition that actually exceeds what he ever got through his music. "Cereal Song" is one of my favorite drug songs: I think it really sums up the sadness and the sense of being beaten down that a good solid decade or so of heroin use will give you. Bob and I had that lifestyle in common, we both loved the shit out of that needle, but we chose different methods in how we decided to move into the next phase of our lives, that's all. So I put "Cereal Song" on here, because there is something in this song that every junkie feels at some point, and I know that my characters felt it too. For extra druggy vibes, John Frusciante who had his own prolonged and public bout of heroin addiction, plays the guitar solo. So, good for you Bob (and John) I wish you the best. Dr. Drew, however, is a sanctimonious prick and he can eat a dick as far as I'm concerned.


"Walking in LA" – Missing Persons (Spring Session M, 1983)

Towards the end of the book, Randal P Earnest – the son of a famous Hollywood family – is returning to LA from a self-imposed exile in Vegas. When he turns on the car, this song is playing on the radio. Well, God, it really is one of the ultimate LA songs, isn't it? It's shiny, superficial, pop fun and it was always on LA radio when I lived out there. It was the kind of song you never heard anywhere else, except in a car that was flying down the Pacific Coast Highway during a Rodney Bingenheimer 80s Flashback Weekend. Yeah, its trashy and poppy, but it's a song that puts me right back there, and I feel it grounds the book in a specific time and a place, so here it is.


"Somewhere (from West Side Story)" – Tom Waits (Blue Valentine, 1978)

I was trying to imagine a song that would be playing when you read the final sentence of Sick City. I wont give away the ending, but that sense of doomed optimism that pervades Waits' version of this old chestnut from West Side Story is ideal, as far as I'm concerned. It's beautiful, isn't it? Some people seem to think that Waits' whole persona is just a shtick, but that misses the point for me. Suspend your disbelief and just listen to the beaten down sense of grace he achieves in this perfect interpretation.


Tony O'Neill and Sick City links:

the author's website
the author's book tour dates
excerpt from the book

Austin Chronicle review
Bookslut review

3:AM interview with the author
Oregonian profile of the author
Three Guys One Book essay by the author
The Whiskey Dregs interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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